Is Argentina Poised To Clean Up Its Judiciary?

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An upcoming official investigation into judicial corruption in Argentina is poised to lift the lid on the country’s highly questioned judiciary, possibly spurring much-needed improvements, including the removal of barriers to solving an expanding list of cases involving powerful political and economic elites.

Miguel Piedecasas, the head of Argentina’s Council of Magistrates (Consejo de la Magistratura de la Nación), a judicial body in charge of selecting and removing judges, told Clarin that the body will soon release the first audit of federal judges investigating cases of corruption since 1996. He said the report will unveil low sentencing and high acquittal rates, suggesting graft cases may have been subject to manipulation or bias.

Piedecasas also said delays, often the consequence of political maneuvering by either judges or lawyers, result in most cases expiring before a sentence is decided. This means many defendants in corruption cases are able to evade justice based on legal technicalities rather than the weight of the evidence.

The report, which will be made public in March after the judges who have been investigated have a chance to give their comments, will include details of 2,264 cases of corruption currently before the courts. Judges in charge of the cases will be named but the names of the accused will remain secret.

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Nearly half of cases of corruption that have reached the courts are at a standstill, according to an analysis of a sample of cases by La Nación.

Piedecasas told La Prensa that the council is also auditing investigations of drug trafficking, although he did not provide more details of the study, which is currently underway but at an earlier stage than the one on cases involving corruption charges.

Argentina’s recent history has abundant examples of corruption and money laundering accusations against high-level authorities and other individuals linked to them, which the country has been largely unable to effectively prosecute. This widespread impunity has fed the notion that corruption is somehow acceptable and has contributed to the development of illegal networks involving powerful elites.

Deep-seated corruption in Argentina has gained new attention in recent years, after former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and a number of local officials, businessmen and their relatives were accused of money laundering and embezzlement of public funds. Some high-level figures are still under investigation.

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The comments Piedecasas made to the media suggest the report will be highly critical of the performance of judges handling corruption cases in Argentina.

The fact that the report was commissioned in the first place, and for the first time, shows not only that Argentina might be ready to face its long history of corruption, but also that the time might be ripe to do something about it.

Observers have long pointed to evidence of partiality in Argentina’s judiciary, and judges have been blamed for their inability to tackle criminal networks that have gained power in the country over the last two decades.

It’s no coincidence that the low sentencing and high acquittal rates in cases involving corruption allegations raised the alarm of the head of the Court of Magistrates, which is made up by representatives of the judiciary, the legislative and the executive powers, two lawyers and one academic.

Since Piedecasas was first elected to the judicial body in 2015, he seems to have made it his personal goal to fight corruption within Argentina’s judiciary. He also seems to have the backing of the Macri administration, which has focused a lot of its attention on the fight against corruption.

But Argentina’s opposition, led largely by former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has questioned the timing of the report and accused the Macri administration of using the judiciary as a tool of political persecution. They also complained Macri’s party is overrepresented in the Court of Magistrates and said this makes it a biased body.

However, the fact that Piedecasas’ audit covers events that took place over a 20-year period, before Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner took office, and that it will not name those accused goes some way to counteract this argument.

In any case, there is no doubt that the publication of the report will reignite already heated political confrontations in a very polarized country. And there’s reason to believe the judiciary will become a new battleground.

Increased attention on the judicial system will likely put more pressure on judges in charge of corruption investigations to clean up their act.

One possible reaction could be the acceleration of cases pending in the courts and the widening of the net of accusations against high-level elites.

The release of the report might be a stepping stone towards the dismantling of the strong network of crime that has cemented its presence in Argentina over the last two decades.

It remains to be seen whether the release of the report will generate strong enough momentum to push through necessary structural reforms to the judiciary. Still, it could send a message to judges that turning a blind eye to corruption will not be tolerated.

Just as the expectation of impunity has encouraged the growth of corrupt elite networks, the expectation of swift and certain punishment could go a long way toward deterring people from getting involved in illicit criminal organizations.

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